This was one of the academic work from the “Status, Evaluation, and Inequality” course taught by Professor James Chu in the Fall of 2022. When I was working on this assignment, I thought it was a fun exercise looking at colors from a sociology perspective – never have I done that before! And that’s why I felt motivated to throw this piece on the internet. If you enjoy colors as much as I do, I hope you will also find this piece inspirational and fuel your colorful passion with a refreshing sociological lens.

In numerous studies, researchers have documented that color carries more than aesthetic perception. Each color is paired with different psychological messages, such as red for fear, alert, and anger [1, 2]. From a neuroscience perspective, colors can also stimulate diverse reactions and behaviors. Color red can guide attention [3] and increase the intensity of pain perception [4].

Beyond psychological association and neuroscientific findings, this memo will begin to look at color with a sociological lens, examine its social significance and role in the status game. To do so, we will review the usage of color as a mechanism in the status game throughout human history. We will then look at the hypothesis presented by the two historical examples and how the mechanism has evolved over time in the modern days leading to our conclusion.

Yellow in the East

In Ancient China, by activating boundary maintenance, color was once used as a gatekeeping criteria to exclude others and strengthen the social status of the members already in the “elite circle”. In this case, it was the emperors and their imperial status. Beginning in the Han Dynasty, “Five Elements (Wuxing)” started to gain popularity and became a strong philosophical belief. The Five Elements consist of metal, wood, water, fire, and earth. Until today, it is still the core philosophy of Feng Shui and practiced all over the world. To visualize, each element is paired with a specific color. Yellow, corresponding with earth, is believed to imply the core of the universe and the center of everything. God rules the heaven and the emperor rules everything underneath. In addition to that, though written differently, the pronunciation of yellow and emperor are identical in the Chinese language. Therefore, in the Tang Dynasty, Emperor Gaozong started to use yellow as a symbol of his royal status, and banned yellow to be worn by civilians. This tradition continued and was followed by the emperors afterwards throughout Song, Yuan, Ming, and Qing Dynasties [5].

However, before yellow became a gatekeeping mechanism and on top of the pyramid, it was one of the most used colors on clothing. That is because fabric can easily be dyed in yellow using natural and common ingredients such as turmeric and onion peels. The easier it was to access for most people, the further away it was from the higher class. If yellow was never appointed as the wardrobe for emperors, it would not have been naturally associated with the imperial status as presented in Chinese history.

There is a saying that Tang Gaozong was not the first emperor to dress in yellow. As shown in many historical art pieces, Emperor Wen of Sui Dynasty was the first emperor on record to appear consistently in yellow robes. However, during his ruling, yellow was not exclusive for royal usage. As broadly documented, Emperor Wen is regarded as the one of the most benevolent and practical emperors. Some scholars believe that Emperor Wen favored yellow robes due to the affordability and accessibility of yellow fabric.

Tang Gaozong and his “yellow ban” was half success and half a failure. This tradition was successfully carried down throughout Imperial China’s history, and established a distinctive representation of Chinese Emperors’s yellow attire. The word “yellow robe (huang-pao)” is therefore associated with imperial status. For example, the phrase “be draped with yellow robe (huang-pao-jia-shen)” implies the person is made emperor. However, in reality, because of the ease of access to yellow fabric for civilians, the “yellow ban” was hardly executed [5]. Therefore, while yellow represented the social status of an emperor, it remained accessible for individuals coming from all social rankings, making the social symbol of yellow one-sided even under a forced exclusion: as yellow becomes a symbol for emperors, meanwhile, not everyone in yellow resembles the royal status.

Blue in the West

In the previous example, the accessibility of yellow fabric limited the execution effectiveness of the status boundary of this color. To examine this argument, we can refer to the use of blue on artwork from the Renaissance period. Prior to the commercialization of the modern synthetic pigments, the price of a specific blue pigment, named Ultramarine, used to be as expensive as gold. At the time, it was not the only blue pigment, but the blue tints created by other pigments from roots or berries would quickly fade away, making Ultramarine the superior choice of blue pigment in the use of artwork.

Ultramarine was costly because it was made of a rare mineral, and was imported by Venetian merchants from mines in Afghanistan [6]. Most artists would not be able to afford this costly pigment without sponsorships, and therefore Ultramarine was not popularized across all paintings at this time. Consequently, the usage of Ultramarine was paid by wealthy sponsors and reserved for figures of particular significance [6]. Virgin Mary, as one of the most holy figures of the Catholic Church, and with strong religious worth, was repeatedly portrayed with blue robes in the artwork from the Renaissance period. Scholars and students studying Renaissance paintings would also use the color of Ultramarine to identify figures in the painting.

Individuals and organizations higher in the social order tend to gain more access to limited resources and materials that are out of reach by many. Status advantages such as fortune and the access to scarce resources become a driving motivation for the pursuit of social status [7]. This explains why Catholic Church or other higher-positioned institutions would want to compete to remain in power. Ultramarine is just one of the many examples of status symbols and the fruit of higher-positioned individuals and organizations. Whether they climbed up the ladder via dominance or prestige in the first place, at the end of the ladder, awaits power, wealth, political influence, and all kinds of status advantages.

Modern Implications

Two sets of status hierarchy were presented in the latter example: the social status of Catholic Church that supplies them with power and fortune to possess Ultramarine pigment, and the in-group status of Virgin Mary to be appointed as the figure that was worthy of Ultramarine usage. In comparison to the previous example of yellow usage in Ancient China, the status symbol is mirrored from both angles. Without ruling by exclusion that forbade other individuals from usage, simply because of the difficulty to possess such a resource, Ultramarine is rarely used to portray common civilians of lower-status.

This poses one hypothesis: limited resources are often reserved for and associated with higher-status individuals and organizations. Moreover, when a resource is accessible for most people, the status symbol it carries may be one-sided even under a forced exclusion. That is, the persons from the higher status may always possess a specific resource, but if the resource is open-access, not everyone who possesses such resource is from the same social rank.

As modern synthetic pigments are further commercialized, the circumstances indicated in the two examples and the embedded status symbols are brought out differently. Product colors launched as limited editions are an evolved version of the Ultramarine scenario. As resources are limited, it reveals buyers’ capability in successfully acquiring an exclusive merchandise out of reach by others, and badging them with a higher status within this specific group. Trademark registrations of colors are much the same as yellow in Ancient China. Companies strengthen their brand identity by prohibiting competitors to follow. The exclusivity to the trademarked color in a way also represents the perceived social worthiness of the brand, otherwise they would not have been approved for registering the trademark in the first place.

Though the implied status of color has shifted in the modern days, there are still many sociological interpretations of color. Color continues to hold powerful social significance such as categorizing working classes by blue and white collars, which also hint their financial status. And that leads to the more important takeaway from this memo. When colors are used to label social groups, we must be mindful of the hidden consequences behind these stereotypes, and do not let color be an actor of discrimination.

Columbia University | Fall 2022 | SOCI 4124 Status, Evaluation, and Inequality | Rina Shin

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[1] Moller, A. C., Elliot, A. J., & Maier, M. A.. Basic Hue-Meaning Associations. Emotion, 2009.

[2] Fugate, J. M. B., & Franco, C. L. What color is your anger? Assessing color-emotion pairings in English speakers. Frontiers in Psychology, 2019.
[3] Kuniecki, M., Pilarczyk, J., & Wichary, S. The color red attracts attention in an emotional context. An ERP study. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 2015.
[4] Wiercioch-Kuzianik, K., & BCrossed D Signbel, P. Color Hurts. The Effect of Color on Pain Perception. Pain Medicine (United States), 2019.
[5] Song, Minsheng. 宋代社会中黄色的功能. Academic Journal of Zhongzhou, 2021.
[6] Hull, Alyssa Mary. Investigation of Ultramarine Pigment Excited State Dynamics by Pump-Probe Microscopy and Spectroscopy. Master’s thesis, Duke University, 2017.
[7] Anderson, C., & Kilduff, G. J.. The Pursuit of Status in Social Groups. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 2009.

Working in the tech field while side-tracking as a content creator for CMF Design. Have been practicing in the field of CMF Design since 2011 and an active learner. Aspired to share the know-how about CMF Design while picking up new knowledge along the journey. 於科技業任職並兼任CMF設計的自由撰稿人。自2011年起投入於CMF設計領域並持續成長。善於分享關於CMF設計的小知識,也樂於在這個旅程中學習新知。

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